miscreations

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, edited by Doug Murano & Michael Bailey, sets out to ponder the nature of monsters. The cover art and interior illustrations by HagCult set a fine, monstrous mood. And as Alma Klatu expresses it, in her foreword, “If you dwell on it, the logic is obvious. Monsters couldn’t exist without man to will them into existence. Monsters are (nearly always) man’s creation, sprung from man’s mind.”

It’s a terrific way to set the stage. But Miscreations does not quite play out as the foreword suggests.

Uneven in its execution, Miscreations gathers twenty-three stories from a panoply of talented authors into an anthology that never fully coalesces around its theme.The idea is left too broad, I think, especially since several of the selections use Frankenstein as their jumping-off point. This gives the anthology a definite direction that makes the rest of the not-Frankenstein’s-monster stories seem disconnected.

Fortunately, the stories themselves are all solid.

***

miscreationsThe stand-outs, to me, are these:

“Matryoshka” by Joanna Parypinski uses nesting dolls as the link between generations, and misunderstanding their importance produces disturbing familial rifts. A painful mother/daughter relationship, revealed layer by layer.

“Imperfect Clay” by Lisa Morton gives us a woman whose quest to build a better man reveals the slippery slope of defining “perfect”. The characters of the creator and her creation are finely drawn and fully believable.

“Ode to Joad the Toad” by Laird Barron winds through a grim and grimly humourous fantasy of gods, assassins, beasts, and politics. Byzantine, deeply weird, and thoroughly engrossing.

“Paper Doll Hyperplane” by R.B. Payne serves up a heady mix of Lovecraftian concepts, serial murder, and academia’s obsessive publish or perish imperative. Unexpectedly fun, and effective.

“The Making of Asylum Ophelia” by Mercedes M. Yardley is a striking twist on the character’s famous madness. Another fraught mother/daughter relationship, with an open-ended tragedy at its end.

***

Overall, I feel that Miscreations misses the mark on a truly unifying theme, which does the anthology a disservice. It delivers a variety of well-done stories with monsters ranging from the traditional to the distinctly new. But it fails to tie them together in a way that builds something bigger from all the different parts.

Nox Pareidolia

Nox Pareidolia, Nightscape Press’s recent anthology, stands as a quick-reference guide to excellent weird fiction. The thirty-one stories collected here are each disquieting and ambiguous, but never repetitive. They go their own strange ways, distinctly individual yet building like pieces of a puzzle to an inescapable sense of doom. Don Noble’s striking cover art and Luke Spooner’s vivid interior illustrations amplify the unease.

I found the horror in Nox Pareidolia to be generally quiet and introspective, although there is still an abundant selection of monsters and a healthy smattering of bloodshed. The characters throughout are lost souls, whether they know it or not. Their stories are compelling, slow-motion wrecks.

I relished every one of them.

***

Nox PareidoliaThe ones that stick with me are these:

“The Dredger” by Matt Thompson happens in a gritty, industrial wasteland that is itself as bleak and confusing as what happens to the protagonist. I saw a definite undercurrent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner running through the story.

“Hello” by Michael Wehunt is a disorienting found-footage trip through conspiracy theories, the weird fiction community, and one of Lionel Ritchie’s greatest hits. Nonlinear and unforgettable.

“Rum Punch is Going Down” by Daniel Braum reads like Margaritaville by way of Hunter S. Thompson and White Zombie. Set on a tropical island where people go to escape their other lives, the story unfolds as a heady blend of light, dark, and bizarre. 

“The Past You Have, The Future You Deserve” by K.H. Vaughan is a quietly philosophical horror story that explores the weight and repercussions of responsibility, both shirked and assumed, before it comes to an abrupt and satisfying conclusion.

 “Sincerely Eden” by Amelia Gorman follows the disintegration of a woman’s life framed by communications from an old, lost friend. But as the woman explains what happened between them it becomes clear that the devil is in the details.

 “When the Nightingale Devours the Stars” by Gwendolyn Kiste presents a subtle and chilling view of witchcraft coupled with a scathing observation of small-town expectations. Flavored with hints of The Twilight Zone and deeply unsettling.

“In the Vastness of the Sovereign Sky” by S.L. Edwards delves into the disruptions of civil war and how it lets weirdness edge its bloodthirsty way in. The characters’ attempts to unravel past atrocities leave them exposed to the cult of personality behind the original horror. Another fine, nuanced tale from one of my favorite authors.

***

While I have my favorites, every story contained here is a strong one. Nox Pareidolia is a well-put-together anthology that, for me, evokes the unifying yet disconcerting feeling of being lost and helpless before inscrutable forces. 

What more could anyone ask of weird horror?

Pandemics have a way of throwing us all off-schedule. In addition to going on a mad writing binge for the past two months, I have been working on reviews of a couple of recent anthologies, and I am waiting to hear back on several submissions of my own.

Until there is news to report, here is a little more poetry to fill the time. These two originally appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer‘s Summer 2015 issue.

Stay safe.

 

Cut in Marble

I.
Arachne at her web,
With blithe indifference to her gods–
The hands that made her hands so skilled,
The minds that dreamed her.
She will learn too late
Or never learn
What debt she owes,
And with what blood she must repay it.

II.
I have been everything, incarnate,
Possible and protean,
Promethean, unbounded,
Brought to bay
By other gods.
I have dared excel amidst the mud,
And giving into mortal hands
Have created my own thousand faces.

***

Pasiphaë

The sun himself my father, you would slander me
that I lay with the ocean’s bulls, not even his stallions,
my son a monster by his sire.

You cannot even claim him,
cannot countenance that such a beast is yours.

Instead you give me sin to hide your greed,
that you would keep what you should sacrifice,
cast the weight of your rare insult onto me
since women cannot rule their lust.
Not like you men, with your young gods.
Ask your mother of that.
She gave us monsters of her own.

All the same he is called for you, his father.
History will remember that, if nothing else of us.

Distant Early Warning

We all know how these last few weeks have been.

Like many of us, I lost track of time. But back in February, my story “Distant Early Warning” appeared on Season 14, Episode 2 of The No Sleep Podcast. They do a good job over there, and it’s a fine way to pass all this time.

Since I don’t have a great deal more to report at this time (soon, soon!), I leave you with this, first published in The Rose Red Review a few years ago:

 

The Queen in Red

A year is not enough time to forget,

to see my face instead of hers

when he closes his eyes.

Her girl reminds him.

But I took my vows to him, I cannot go back.

 

She is mine now, in status if not fact.

Revenant. Dead queen’s daughter.

I would have named her differently,

Cynthia, Bianca, Alba,

but it was not my choice.

 

Mirror image in the flesh,

her mother’s echo, to remind

him that she gave him a child

and died to do it, to remind

him that I am his second choice, to remind

him of how fine she was.

The dead are always so.

I cannot compare.

 

I think sometimes he pretends she is her,

their two faces confused,

the girl’s scent her mother’s, the rustle

of her clothes a herald

that she is alive still and waiting—

and I am made of nothing, lost

among ghosts.

 

She reminds him that he can engender,

that my empty belly is my fault alone.

 

The glass does not lie. I am still a fair woman.

I will wear my hair loose

as she does, as I did when I was a girl.

I will fold my bodice so, to show my breasts,

I will perfume my lips and tongue with sweet fruit,

lady apples to please him,

but it will not matter;

I am not her.

 

She reminds him

that she filled her mother once.

She is old enough to marry off

but he keeps her near.

 

I will name my daughter Alba, if she is born.

 

A year is not enough of mourning,

not for a man’s desires.

Still I stay bare as a stick; he remembers

what it is to get a child on a wife, remembers

what it is to make her bloom.

 

I have felt it stir and bleed away,

twice now. Barren as old dirt.

Nothing will grow in me, nothing

but loathing.

I will carry one if not the other.

 

It is her he wants,

whose mirrored image he still can see.

 

I hate her, poor orphan. She gnaws my soul.

 

One would think she would smell my poison

on my skin like rank sweat,

weeping from my eyes. Bitter as salt.

Better hate the man that made her, but too much depends.

I took my vows to him.

I cannot go back.

 

She is obedient, if nothing else,

and coddled enough not to question.

Even me. Even now.

 

Come to me here, now, my poppet, my pet

 

Her name is awkward on my tongue,

I want to say Alba, my Alba—

yet she comes.

 

Come sit with me and let me comb your hair

Come sit with me and let me lace your dress

Come sit with me and let me feed you from my own mouth

as if you were mine.

 

I have paid dear

to host this banquet.

She will eat well

of the only fruit my womb has borne.

It is not sweet.

 

It will be me he sees then.

 

Only me.

luminous body

Luminous Body, Brooke Warra’s lovely novella, is a beautiful, rich, and unnervingly honest amalgam of family ties, motherhood, illness, and body horror. It is an engrossing story of a life lived on and beyond the margins, masterfully told.

***

luminous bodyI don’t know quite how to describe Luminous Body. It covers so much ground in so few pages– family dynamics, exploitative relationships, unhealthy friendships, memory, addiction, and lies. Warra’s language and phrasing is wonderful, precise and evocative. Her skill in drawing her characters renders them painfully real, fully developed and as hopeful and damaged as any of us are. It is a slice of life colored with strange magic.

I wish I had written it.

***

Mo, the narrator, comes from a long line of tenacious but marginalized women. Her mother died several years earlier, and she never knew her father. Mo is mentally ill by her own admission. She scrapes by, working as a waitress at her grandmother’s diner. She lives in a cheap apartment, does her nails with magic markers, drinks too much, smokes, and sleeps around. She is damaged, and, like any of us, is just trying to deal with it and get by.

And then one day she discovers she is pregnant. And then she discovers she is not. And then the mystery at the heart of Luminous Body begins.

***

Beautifully realized, Warra’s tale is full of the fine, awkward details that make up a tangled and misspent life. Every mistake, bad decision, manipulation and abandonment feels true. By the time Mo’s narrative slides sideways into the weird, that feels like just one more genuine experience, too.

This is the kind of book you read for the writing as much as for the plot. Gorgeously illustrated by Brooke Warra’s daughter, Zoe Leigh, Luminous Body is currently available as a limited edition, numbered chapbook from Dim Shores. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

shout kill revel repeat

Shout Kill Revel Repeat, Scott R. Jones’s new collection, is a dizzying trip through the void.

Lovecraft’s ideas make frequent appearances, but not as pastiche. Jones’s stories fly in multiple new directions, at turns frenetic and understated, militaristic, mystical, and sinister. 

His meaty, visceral prose and plots that flow in great loops across time and space, peopled with ghouls and Old Ones and shoggoths, imply motives and purposes that cannot even be recognized by frail humans. Jones does a remarkable job of conveying the utterly alien incomprehensibility of the Lovecraftian cosmos. His characters struggle to navigate a universe that doesn’t care if they exist or not. They are irrelevant to everything but themselves, and they know it.

***

shout kill revel repeatShout Kill Revel Repeat gathers seventeen tales of cosmic horror and science fiction that are immersive and jarringly realistic for all their weirdness. The common thread I find running through them is the instability of time, and what that instability costs. Plots and events are slippery things, unanchored and inconstant, while characters fight to keep their balance. It is all quite beautifully done.

My favorites are:

“The Spike”, which uses an ambitious employee in far over his head to introduce us to Eidolon Corporation and the recurring character of Aldo Tusk, a weird and mysterious tech magnate. 

“Last Stand at Cougar Annie’s”, an end of the world scenario after genetically altered men–and militarized women– have become the enemy. 

“Living” brings back Aldo Tusk, isolated in the arctic and facing down a driven, adaptive, and superhuman weapon of his own design. 

“Assemblage” Point” reads like a strange, gorgeously convoluted take on Sunset Boulevard’s story structure. It’s one of those uncommon second-person narratives that wouldn’t work properly from a different point of view.

“Wonder and Glory Forever” connects a lost and motherless man with the devout worshipper of an ancient sea god, in a surfing community in the Pacific Northwest. Vividly told, and compelling in its half-revealed secrets.

***

Jones, the man behind the late Martian Migraine Press, has also just released the novel Stonefish. So if you enjoy the dark worlds of Shout Kill Revel Repeat, there is immediately more to be had. I highly recommend diving in.

Women in Horror

Women in Horror Month rightfully draws attention to the many talented women writing today–Nadia Bulkin, Gwendolyn Kiste, Kathe Koja, Lisa Tuttle, and so many, many more. But it also always brings me back to a pair of sisters who compiled some of the most formative women’s horror I ever read.

***

Women in HorrorA true sister act, Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis were devoted to creating wonderful anthologies of supernatural fiction for young readers. While their output spanned the later 1960s through 1980, it was during the 1970s that they focused on the female, filling volumes with two century’s worth of suspense, fantasy, gothic, and ghostly fiction written by women.

Their anthologies were certainly my first exposure to classics like Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds”. And there were so many others, by authors both expected and quite a surprise.

Some of the ones I still remember with a chill follow.

***

Ladies of Horror: Two Centuries of Supernatural Stories by the Gentle Sex (1971)

  • Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit
  • Hand in Glove by Elizabeth Bowen
  • The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex (1973)

  • The Head by E. Nesbit
  • Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden by Lillian de la Torre
  • The Willow Tree by Jane Rice

Ladies of the Gothics (1975) 

  • The Locked Room Upstairs by Celia Fremlin
  • The Housekeeper’s Story (excerpt from Wuthering Heights) by Emily Brontë
  • The Sailor Boy’s Tale by by Isak Dinesen

Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex (1975)

  • Searching for Summer by Joan Aiken
  • The Unwanted by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • The Ensouled Violin by Madame Blavatsky
  • Doorway Into Time by C. L. Moore

Women in HorrorSisters of Sorcery (1976)

  • Through the Needle’s Eye by Andre Norton
  • The Horned Women by Lady Wilde
  • No Witchcraft for Sale by Doris Lessing

Women of the Weird: Eerie Stories by the Gentle Sex (1976)

  • One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts by Shirley Jackson
  • John Charrington’s Wedding by E. Nesbit
  • The Yellow Dwarf by Comtesse d’Aulnoy 

Ghostly Gentlewomen: Two Centuries of Spectral Stories By the Gentle Sex (1977)

  • Mr. Edward by Norah Lofts
  • Mommy by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
  • A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
***

While Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis are gone and their anthologies out of print, I think in their time they did an excellent job of showing the wide swath women cut through the speculative genres. The field has of course changed, growing more daring and more diverse. And Women in Horror Month has room for all of us, from the literary to the gonzo, from the earliest to the cutting edge.

Keep reading.

Color Out of Space

 

Color Out of Space has been on my radar for a long time. H.P. Lovecraft. Nicolas Cage. Cosmic horror and vigorous over-emoting. What’s not to love?

It turns out, more than I hoped there would be.

***

Directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space opens beautifully, with haunting vistas that set a mood of wildness and isolation.This is almost immediately shattered by a main character showing up wearing a Miskatonic University tee shirt. The film is littered with many other similar, unnecessary call-outs to HPL– a paperback copy of The Necronomicon being the most egregious–that strike me as attempts to build a credibility the movie doesn’t need. Stanley is able to evoke the blind horror of the utterly unknown and build to a stunning conclusion without having to put his inspirations on display.

For all its flaws, Color Out of Space is a remarkably well-realized vision of Lovecraft’s story. Stanley faithfully captures the essential ideas behind it. Weirdness bleeds from almost every scene. The inexplicable alien menace grows until it overwhelms. There is no happy ending–especially not for the characters who survive.

***

Those poor characters.

Because of the script’s weaknesses and the direction’s inconsistency, the characters are almost afterthoughts to the action. Backstory details are dropped in without any context or relevance. Family interactions become non-sequiturs as parents and children talk past each other or shift emotional gears midstream without warning or provocation. There is an awful shortsightedness to how the characters are presented–there is no sense of them being a family, or of them even existing in any meaningful way.

I blame this on the direction, simply because of the competency of the cast. Good actors can transcend a limp script, but not indecisive, inconsistent direction. 

Nicolas Cage’s Nathan Gardner is all over the map–angsty, maniacal, befuddled. Perhaps if Cage had been allowed to take it all the way over the top he would have been more convincing.

As his wife, Theresa, Joely Richardson seems thoroughly disconnected. I don’t think she knows what she is supposed to do with her character.

Madeleine Arthur as their daughter Lavinia gives a genuinely strong performance. Her witchy power is diminished by weak, often inane dialogue. Elliot Knight as the narrator and sort-of-hero Ward Phillips also gives a comparatively steady performance despite the uneven demands made of his character. 

Unfortunately, Brendan Meyer as the family’s older son, Benny, is saddled with “stoner” as his defining trait and doesn’t really move past it.  Speaking of stoners, Tommy Chong as the mystical squatter Ezra iplays the same character he usually plays–but among the general chaos he is at least believable.  

Rounding out the main cast we have Q’orianka Kilcher appearing briefly as Mayor Tooma, an otherwise talented actress given a pointless role. She at least fared better than poor Julian Hilliard, who as Jack existed merely as a plot device.

***

For me, Color Out of Space produces a weird cognitive dissonance that has nothing to do with the source material. While I can’t say I truly liked it, I do recommend it.

As a comeback film for Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space does what it needs to do. His vision is gorgeous and clear, and his interpretation of the source material captures its bleak and dreadful feel. Despite awkward performances that made my skin crawl for all the wrong reasons, when it came time to bring the unspeakable alien horror crashing down the movie absolutely nails it. The ending is as overwhelming and hopeless as being swept out to sea. 

As many times as I have read Lovecraft’s story, I never saw it. Not like this. 

It seems Stanley did.

 

Strength of Water

Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a strange, compelling, and disorienting novella about sweeping changes–good, bad, and transcendent. 

The story is loosely divided into three sections. The first is our inside-the-skull introduction to the two main characters, and the circumstances of their lives. The second is a tear in the fabric of the universe and a peek at the mechanics of the world. The third is a glimpse of liberation.

In the end I was left at the edge of a cliff and wanting to know what happened next–a very good thing.

***

Strength of WaterStrength of Water tells the interwoven stories of Sati and Satyan, two young adults with a haunting, shared desire: to try on another’s form, and to experience the benefits that come from it. 

Their story unfolds at a Bangalorean university in 1999, against a background of liberties and civil rights being stripped away with increasing vigor. The dreamy, stream-of-consciousness narrative moves seamlessly between the two characters as they consider their individual reasons, pains, and growing fears. The society around Sati and Saytan is contracting. The threats are growing closer to home. 

Sati is driven to protect herself and her family, and has embraced mythic and metaphysical options. Satyan is estranged from his own family, discontented and unanchored, and looking for an escape. He is ready when Sati’s drive becomes action, and fulfills their wishes in an extraordinary way.

***

Satyamurthy’s moody, lyrical prose and smoothly blended perspectives turn an odd premise into a thoughtful exploration. Strength of Water reminded me strongly of Geoff Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life, with its transformations and heroic quest. And the unexpected leap of an ending did more than make me want to know more about the characters. It makes me want to go back, and read their story over again. 

 

Compline Harbinger Press

And just like that, the winter holidays are upon us–even though we still have a few weeks until winter itself is upon us. The whole cycle seems to come around sooner each year.

I must say, though, I would be happy without the whole snow for Thanksgiving thing.

But on to publishing updates and other happier news!

***

On November 29, my flash fiction story Compline appeared online at Harbinger Press. Click on through and check it out–in addition to mine, there are a slew of solid flash pieces to be found there.

And later this month, Camden Park Press will be releasing the charity anthology Yearning to Breathe Free to benefit RAICES. Following an introduction by the incredibly talented S.L. Edwards, my reprinted story “Imago” shares a TOC with such fine authors as Brooke Warra, Sam Schreiber, Michael Bruggeman, and many others.

winter is coming

If you can, please order a copy as soon as it becomes available and support an important cause. If you can’t afford to order it, please help spread the word.

***

As soon as I finish plowing through my re-read of the first three Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, I will get back to my to-be-read pile. Look out for reviews of the recent novel Strength of Water by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, and the upcoming collection Shout Kill Revel Repeat by Scott R. Jones.

Until then, enjoy what snow may come and try not to let the holidays eat you alive.